Friday, June 7, 2013

Time to Prune those Processes

Anyone who has worked in IT for five years or more knows the truth of the statement: “If you automate a mess, you get an automated mess.” What can we do, and what should we do, about these productivity-sapping kludges? This discussion offers a few short-term actions and some useful longer-term approaches to get some of that productivity back.
One common automation shortcut is to transplant a paper-based process into an exact copy on web screens. The screens look just like the original paper forms, and the process reproduces the exact steps that people used.
The rationale for this relies on the “ease-of-use” and “proven design” fallacies. The business automated the process because it was inefficient, or overly burdensome, or got in the way of needed changes in other business activities. “Ease of use” in this case really means “no learning curve,” which is supposed to reassure the business area that none of their people will have to learn anything new or different. It presumes that the original system was easy to use. Often it was not.
“Proven design” in this case means, “we don’t want to do any business process analysis.” The savings in design and analysis will shorten the front-end of the implementation process, but by not making the design explicit, those well-worn processes remain obscure. This is a problem because unless the implementation team accurately describes the process, the translation from hard copy to soft-copy will create defects. How could that be? In manual processes, users learn to avoid many options they should not take. In computerized processes, the software must handle every possible decision a user could make. The implementation team does not understand that tribal lore the users follow. The implementers must guess what to do in every undocumented case.
That is, the implementation team ends up doing business process analysis under the worst possible conditions:
  •          They do not have the skills to do the job
  •          They do not have the time to do the job
  •          They do not have the tools or procedures to do the job
  •          They do not have formal access to user experts to help with the job, and
  •          They are not evaluated on how well they do the job

Another way to state this is to observe that every system has an architecture. The only question is, does the implementation team know what it is before they begin? The default architecture is inconsistent and incomplete.
Rushing to get from the old (paper-based) process to the new (automated) process on time, the IT organization abandons its core competence, which is to make complex processes clear. Fixing a kludge like this means first identifying and removing gross process inefficiencies, then second streamlining inputs and outputs.
One easy way to find and fix inefficiencies is to measure the elapsed time that process steps take, and use that measurement to extract any activities that are not adding value to the underlying business activity. For instance, some organizations automate approval processes, replacing a physical form with an e-mail link to an approval web page. Look at how long each approver spends on each request over a few weeks. If you find that a person always approves a certain type of request, and does so within 30 seconds, you can conclude that they are not adding any value to the process. They probably got approval rights because they wanted to be aware of requests. The solution is to replace the “action” link with an “informational” link – and not hold up the process by waiting for that rubber stamp.
Streamlining inputs and outputs can save lots of processing time and complexity. Some paper processes produced intermediate reports to measure a team’s workload. Automating these reports and – what is worse – evaluating a team based on that measurement, locks in the original inefficiencies. Every output should have a natural “consumer” who needs that information to do some other job. The other job may be in-line, meaning it waits for the output before it can start, or it may be cyclical, meaning that at some future time the other job starts using a collection of those outputs. Users regard the in-line type (sometimes called “straight-through processing”) as the real application. They may overlook the cyclical type because they do not usually do that part of the work, such as aggregating financial results, auditing, or quality assurance.
By giving the supervisor a measure of the activity, rather than a copy of the results, the process lets the supervisor focus on the business value of the activity rather than the sheer mass of the activity. This moves towards that oft-sought alignment between the IT organization and the business. If the business gets its job done with little extra activity, few procedural glitches, and optimal efficiency, the IT systems that support it are by definition aligned.
It is now spring 2013, a good time to consider pruning those processes.

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